The best-kept secret in graphic design

What actually is graphic design? Not a lot of people seem to know, says Rob Pratt of Brand & Deliver.

'Graphic design' doesn't even appear in Collins English Dictionary, points out Rob Pratt

It is a worrying sign when the passion you have for something isn't in the dictionary. It places you in a type of social purgatory when asked the infamous icebreaker: "So, what do you do for a living?" But not being in the dictionary also plays to the idea of a best kept secret.

Sitting to the left of me is my trusted Collins English Dictionary, which boasts 34,000 definitions ranging from such well-known and well-used words like abstemious and parsimonious to vacillation. It even explains what a wrinkle chaser is.

Unfortunately, the lexicographers at Collins have failed to acknowledge the little known business of graphic design. This may come as a shock (it certainly did to me) but it's true, and in print (or not in this case).

Blind spot

If you take a vox pop in your local pub you'll begin to understand the total lack of understanding of the subject yourself. Graphic design seems to sit in the blind spot for a huge number of the population. Staggering and inexplicable, especially when you consider that it's something which surrounds them wherever they go and whatever they do every day. It may be worrying, but not totally surprising.

The blind spot, however, isn't the magazine, Coke bottle or record cover but the grid used for the layout, font choice and Pantone colour. It is everything that we as graphic designers worry about but which goes unoticed in the eyes of the viewer.

We marvel at the ampersand for its beauty while others would just see it as a shorter way of writing 'and'. We can debate the hatred for Comic Sans when really it's just a mum's choice for creating a kids' party poster using Microsoft Picture It.

Hidden craft

No one but a pro designer knows what a Yellow Pencil is

The graphic design we know is something entirely different to what the average person sees every day. Our graphic design is the hidden craft behind the layout, the tiny changes in kerning on a business card that ensures the '@' sign sits correctly, or the £200 we pay for a particular font just so the lower-case g will sit exactly how we want it to. It is the elitist aspect that we relish and crave, the close-knit community we build and perpetuate by striving for one of those Yellow Pencils or adding MISTD after our surname.

Our world of design is equivalent to a nightclub with the biggest bouncer known to man, guarding the only door, and admitting only a select number of guests at a time. Providing those inside with the ability to whisper naughty typefaces into an attractive person's ear and flirt with folios and paper stocks.

This hidden aspect of graphic design is promoted to other aspiring graphic designers climbing the industry ladder, which in turn reinforces the secret. We actively encourage the mysteriousness of being a 'creative' because it allows us to retreat to the margins and joke about calling our first born child Caledonia.

Exclusive club

Business cards don't usually shed much light on what we do

And when we are asked that icebreaker question at a conference or a seminar, we just reinforce the secret even futher by handing over a meticulously crafted business card.

In itself, a ticket into this exclusive club, providing the key to network and membership of the clique. (But only if the leading and kerning is correct and the typeface acceptable.) The club isn't pretentious, just sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued.

The graphic design world that we may become more widely known in the future, but at the moment we can enjoy all the benefits of being anonymous and admired at the same time. We can enjoy our little known secret before it becomes common knowledge and just a word between graph and grapnel.

Words: Rob Pratt

Rob is design director at Brand & Deliver, a creative agency based in Shoreditch, London.